Naomi Potter (Bsc Politics and International Relations) undertakes an analytical review of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism (1978).

Edward Said, a Palestinian academic working in the mid-late 20th century, wrote Orientalism (1978) in order to underline the essentialising narratives of Western scholars which he saw as dominating the East throughout history. The so-called ‘East’ in his account was the geographical territory spanning Asia, North Africa and the Middle East whilst the ‘West’ was seen as the European Great Powers and, later, North America. The following will offer a review of Orientalism, in particular drawing on the role of ‘essentialism’ in his book. Specifically, it will be argued that a severe weakness in Said’s book is his underdeveloped theoretical foundations which lead to him, in turn, to essentialise the very categories of East and West he seeks to criticize, treating the regions as unchanging and unvaried categories.

Before beginning analysis, I will open briefly with the outlines of what it means to ‘essentialise’ and how exactly Edward Said combines this notion with his Foucauldian and Gramscian theoretical bases. Cartwright defines the term as ‘the doctrine that among the attributes of a thing some are essential, others are merely accidental’ (Cartwright, 1968: 615). Thus, essentialism assumes that if specific defining features of something exist, these features are present across all time, all contexts and variations.  Hence, if the essentialism demonstrates that number 9 is greater than the number 7 then this will always be the case, no matter the way in which it is designated: 9 apples will always be more than 7 apples, 9 books will always be more than 7 books, and so it goes on. While essentialism in terms of numerical value and some aspects of science has remained largely uncontroversial and uncontested, problems arise when understandings of human behavior are reduced to essentialist notions, as will be explored in the following.

Said combines the notion of essentialism with Foucault’s assumption that there is no such thing as an objective reality; there is no way to ‘detach the scholar from…the fact of his involvement [in the world](2003: 10). He argues that, the perception of Eastern nations held widely in the West is one of a primitive, exoticised and less rational race of people, thus fuelling the assumption of Western paternal superiority and the necessity of intervention. This is the result of the personal biases and assumptions held by those scholars who study and write about the region, both conscious and sub-conscious (ibid.). Furthermore, these essentialising discourses become particularly dangerous when combined with hegemony, a concept which Said borrows from Gramsci, which describes a state of ideational domination of one class or group over another. Orientalism is a hegemonic discourse for Said: these essentialist assumptions of Western superiority over Eastern cultures serve the ruling world powers and are manifested throughout all forms of discourse including literature, research and conversation both due to, and in order to, perpetuate the power of these dominant groups. Hence, Said’s Orientalism, is a discursive frame which, through its hegemonic authority, has allowed an excuse for Western oppression and domination of the East for material gain.

What has been said of Said

While the book has contributed a great deal to post-positivist academic writing it is not without its critics (Lockman, 2010).  Perhaps the most well-known critique is that of Bernard Lewis. In his 1982 book review, Lewis claimed that Said was part of a Nazi-linked anti-Semitic conspiracy which was a danger to contemporary scholarship (Ibid.). He made the case that Said depicted Western scholars as evil, contending that the only difference between the essentialism in Said’s work and in the work of Orientalists was that the latter had precision and intellectual rigour in their accounts (Lewis, 1982). For Lewis, Said’s account is a simplified view of the West presented through an ideologically charged narrative and uncritical of its own premises. For Said, the same ideological motivation was true of Lewis; both scholars came at loggerheads over this.

Further analysis has proven to be somewhat more nuanced. Drawing away from polemical outrage at the connections between Said and a wider ideological conspiracy, it looks in more depth at the theoretical and methodological shortcomings of his work while recognising its positive contributions. For instance, Plumb acknowledged the conceptual contributions which Said made, however went on to critique him for his failure to fully contextualise the literary texts of Western scholars that formed the basis of his claims (Lockman, 2013: 194). In a similar vain, al-Azam argues that through constructing such a long historical account in Orientalism, Said falls into the trap of constructing static conceptions of Western and Eastern culture: the West being inherently power hungry and the East being perpetually the innocent party (al-Azm,1981:7).

Both these critiques lead to the conclusion that Said ultimately essentialises the categories of East and West in the way he constructs his account. He makes generalisations about East and Western culture which simplify these regions into timeless and continuing identities. Indeed, it is these more nuanced critiques of Said which the following analysis will stem from. Exploring the implications of misplaced intellectual foundations on the emergence of unintended essentialist narrative in Orientalism, is a worthwhile endeavour, in part because of the impact and importance of Orientalism in contemporary scholarship (Lockman, 2013). Moreover, it is instructive for future study, whether Saidian or not, inasmuch as it allows us to identify the dangers, tensions and possible ways of resolving these issues.  When conducting cross-national study and knowledge production, it is key that we can discern how the process works, what the dangers are, how they can be avoided.

In defence of Said

One defence of Said against the claims that his work essentialises East and West looks at the explicit claims made by Said himself. In the 1995 afterword of Orientalism, Said underlined his regrets at the way in which his work had been interpreted, by the very scholars mentioned above, as a book which seeks to pedal the notion that Islamic and Arabic cultures are perfect and the West is necessarily corrupt and seeking aggrandisement. ‘[V]ery early in the book’, he argues, it is made clear that there is ‘no stable reality’ (2003: 331). Here, he is referring to the influence in his work of Foucault’s discourse analysis. This meant that, for Said, knowledge of reality is constructed within specific discourses which shape how we perceive the world. Said holds that he explicitly recognises that any formulation of reality, whether that be the reality of Western scholarship or Eastern culture, was subjective and hence did not intend to apply for all time. Stemming from this explicit statement of intention from Said we could argue that the notion that he essentialises is simply impossible: if he says he does not intend his constructions of East and West to exist in all possible contexts, they don’t.

Deconstruction of discourse or construction of narratives?

However, this review does not concern Said’s intentions but rather the treatment of the categories of East and West in his book Orientalism. This is an important distinction because it means we must look deeper at exactly how the various themes and concepts are actually put into practice in his work. Firstly, and perhaps most relevant to the defence of Said just considered, is the argument that Said fails to successfully use Foucault. While Said aimed to generate a Foucauldian analysis of the logic and continuities behind the Orientalist discourse, he fails to use the correct methodology for such an exploration. This can be best illustrated by turning to Said’s accounts of Western academic scholarship: institutional Orientalism. Clifford notes that his choice to construct a historical account led him to, more often than not, relaps[e] into traditional intellectual history (Lockman, 2008). Whereas Foucault’s discourse analysis seeks to take the study of discourses away from a focus on the individual, Said’s focus on individuals from antiquity to the present who are complicit in constructing Orientalist discourse detracted from a more structural and sociological explanation of forces in society. This lead Said to set aside the problem of how Orientalism is structurally determined, a question which is at the core of Foucauldian study (Hallaq, 2018), instead generating a presumption of a unilinear tradition of Western scholarship. While Said openly acknowledges that there is no such thing as a reality of Western scholarship, in assuming a priori the existence of Orientalism in Western scholarship and in not interrogating the sociological explanations for this he constructs a narrative of Western scholarship which is fixed, unchanging and essentialised.

Said does try to justify his attempt to determine the ‘imprint of individual thinkers’ who perpetuated Orientalism, ‘unlike Michel Foucault’ (2003: 23). He argues that due to the pervasiveness of Orientalism in texts throughout history it seemed the best way to ‘show the field’s shape and internal organistion’ (ibid: 22). However, it seems Said is missing the point: illustrating the existence of structural injustice as we see it in the world is important, but a more fruitful and Foucauldian approach would have been to look in more depth at a few specific cases of Orientalism and the mechanisms behind which these discourses develop. Indeed, while there is no conclusion in the literature on exactly how one should apply Foucauldian discourse analysis (Fadyl et. al., 2013), it has been agreed that such attempts must seek to demonstrate a clear connection with his overall philosophical aims and values (Hook, 2001; Nicholls, 2009). A deeper structural study and a lighter historical account would have served Said much better in achieving a truly Foucauldian discourse analysis. Critically, in doing this he would have avoided embedding assumptions into his work about the existence of an Orientalist discourse which dates back millennia amongst European or American scholars. In allowing these assumptions to underpin his analysis he paradoxically permits the very essentialist identities he is seeking to avoid.

Getting Gramsci wrong

Said’s essentialising of the Western scholars does not constitute the start and end of his problems in Orientalism. Turning to Said’s (mis)use of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony can help us to illustrate instances of essentialism in categories of East and West in Orientalism which goes beyond Western scholars. Said draws on the role of hegemony, the presence and construction of ‘certain cultural forms which dominate over others’ (2003: 6-7) in order to demonstrate how Orientalism managed to take a sustained position as the hegemonic discourse, being internalised by Western and Eastern cultures alike. However, Said does not explore the concept fully, in particular he fails to offer the necessary depth in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as distinct from those such as Hegel and Marx. For Gramsci, hegemony, unlike mere domination, is not something held over another group but rather the result of complex interplay of societal forces and groups (Stein and Swedenburg, 2004: 9-10). Hence, Gramsci had a unique focus on the active nature of counter-hegemony in history: its role in the ‘war of positions’ which helps to determine the character of the hegemonic forces (Chalcraft and Noorani, 2007). A complete Gramscian analysis of hegemony would therefore offer great depth in studying counter-hegemonic forces as active, autonomous agents in terms of their role, position and culture (ibid.).

There seems to be a distinct lack of reference to such agency of subaltern groups in Said’s work (Ahmad, 1992: 108). Given the time in which Said was writing and the proliferation of such forces this does not seem acceptable. For instance, James McDougal illustrates the influence that religio-cultural resistance of Islamic Algerians had on French colonial policy and the distinctive practice by which the French ruled; such as citizenship policies regarding the settlers vis-à-vis the colonized (Chalcraft and Noorani, 2007, 49-66). These Islamic liberation forces such as the Association of Algerian Muslims had been active for decades before Orientalism was published (ibid: 56). Said misses the importance of the agency of counter-hegemonic forces in terms of the nature and force of hegemony itself. This has the unfortunate impact in his work of reflecting a specific idea of the eastern world as passive and incapacitated, paradoxically leading to the assumption he wants to criticise: that of an eternally distinct and less powerful Eastern region.

The essentialist implications of Said’s misuse of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony do not end here, however. Hegemony does not concern just polarized forces but also the way in which it persists in culture within society at large. Said often refers in his work to the role of literature and culture, however, in this exploration he neglects to consider the many different forms in which culture is constructed, beyond the dominating group itself. Melman, in observing the role of women in constructing parts of the Oriental narrative, highlights how ‘Europe’s attitude towards the Orient was neither unified nor monolithic’ (1992: 7). In particular, she turns to the role of women from the West in depicting Eastern regions. The perspectives of these women often included more richer self-criticism towards cultural superiority. Gramsci’s account of hegemony necessarily involves an extension of analysis to include this intersectional group who are a subset of the bloc of Europeans who explored, observed and studies the Middle East in the colonial period. In ignoring the role of women in the construction of Western hegemony Said makes uncritical assumptions about the core features of Western culture, locating them in the writings of academics throughout history and thus essentialising the notion of the ‘West’ as a perpetually dominating and uniform region of the world.


Said’s failure to fully utilise the theoretical richness of the theories and concepts which lay the foundations for his account led him to essentialise the categories of East and West in Orientalism. Firstly, in using historical methodology, Said obscures his attempts at a Foucauldian discourse analysis generating a historical account which does not do enough to interrogate the mechanisms by which Orientalism comes about, seemingly presupposing their existence in Western scholarly writing. Furthermore, this is only made worse by his neglect of important aspects of the building of hegemonic discourses which leads him to simplify both Western and Eastern cultural production, making uncritical assumptions about their core features of these categories and the extent of variation within them. Both these errors lead to a paradoxical account from Said as his intentions were not only to avoid such essentialist narratives but also to critique them. Despite these intentions however his treatment of East and West does suffer due to his theoretical shortcomings leading to essentialist construction of the categories.



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al-‘Azm, Sadik Jalal. “Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse” (1981) Khamsin: Journal of revolutionary socialists of the Middle East, Pluto Press.  5-26

Cartwright, Richard L. “Some Remarks on Essentialism.” Journal of Philosophy 65, no. 20 (1968): 615–626.

Chalcraft, J., & Noorani, Y. A. (2007). Counterhegemony in the colony and postcolony. Palgrave Macmillan.

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Stein , Rebbecca and Swedenburg, Ted (2004) Popular Culture, Relational History, and the Question of Power in Palestine and Israel, Journal of Palestine Studies , University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies , Vol. 33, No. 4 (Summer 2004), pp. 5-20


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